From July 30th to August 4th, the American Bar Association met in Chicago for its annual meeting. The gathering featured the usual mix of ceremony, continuing legal education panels, and internal ABA business. As part of the Federalist Society’s ABA Watch coverage, this post will cover programmatic offerings of interest at the annual meeting.

General Assembly

The August 1st general assembly is the centerpiece of the meeting, where the ABA presents its highest awards and welcomes a keynote speaker. Outgoing ABA President William C. Hubbard opened the evening with remarks about the direction of the Association during his tenure. He focused particularly on what he termed a “troubling and destabilizing loss of trust in our criminal justice system.” He highlighted the Association’s advocacy for sentencing reform, calls for alternatives to incarceration, and promotion of member participation in the pro bono Clemency Project 2014. Hubbard also highlighted pro bono efforts by ABA members to prevent the deportation of immigrant children.

Hubbard’s remarks echoed those of Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, delivered by video, which called for a justice system that “punishes for crimes committed, but offers a fair sentence and a just approach after time served.”

Hubbard went on to present the ABA Medal to Roberta Cooper Ramo, the past—and first female—ABA President from 1995-1996. Cooper Ramo currently serves as the American Law Institute President. Cooper Ramo began by discussing the role that “the courts and our Constitution” play in keeping together a nation of diverse beliefs and origins. She continued on to highlight several personal influences ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Phil Neal, former Dean of the University of Chicago Law School.

Loretta Lynch

The keynote address for the evening was delivered by United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Ms. Lynch began by exhorting the ABA to commit itself to “enabling greatness, defend[ing] liberty, and pursu[ing] justice, in every direction, in every case, and in every community across this nation.”

Ms. Lynch focused on criminal justice reform for the largest portion of her remarks. She reiterated concerns raised by former Attorney General Eric Holder about mandatory criminal sentences and a lack of rehabilitation and reentry programs. She highlighted notable and increasing bipartisan support for legislation addressing these issues.

Next, Ms. Lynch turned to issues of homeland security. She cited Department of Justice efforts to “identify the seeds of homegrown extremism and terrorism before they take root, while continuously adapting our strategies, because these threats continue to materialize, morph and metastasize.” In addition to these traditional terrorist threats, Ms. Lynch asserted that there is a growing focus by federal law enforcement agencies on cyber threats.

Ms. Lynch concluded by discussing the current debate over police interactions with minority communities. She stated that her concern extended to “every city, every town, and every neighborhood, and nowhere is the need for urgent assistance more clear than in communities riven by deeply rooted discord between law enforcement officials and the people we serve and protect. In recent months, a series of tragedies across this country has reminded us that the breakdowns in these relationships have truly devastating consequences.” While Ms. Lynch noted her respect and admiration for police officers, she stated that, “in such a diverse nation, with our complex racial history, we must do more to ensure that interactions between officers and communities of color are positive and productive.” To that end, Ms. Lynch described her ongoing tour of cities across the country to build “trust and justice… ending excessive use of force, and promoting accountability systems.”

Voting Rights Panel

Over the course of the weekend, the ABA offered meeting attendees a variety of continuing legal education events. A Saturday panel on the Voting Rights Act in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder offered some of the more heated discussion.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California opened the panel, arguing that the current debate over the future of the VRA was just another chapter of a history that began with the Reconstruction amendments after the Civil War. Opponents of the expanded franchise in that era waged a “determined, brutal, and violent campaign to suppress the black vote” that ultimately resulted in systemic, discriminatory laws and practices. It was this system that the Civil Rights Movement sought to address by calling for a federal legislative response, of which, Waters argued, the Voting Rights Act was the most important piece.

Waters noted that Section 5 of the Act—the “preclearance” requirement for certain states—had always been the most objectionable to the Act’s opponents. In the years after the election of Barack Obama as President, Waters claimed, there has been a resurgence of tactics designed to erode voter protections. She counted among these attempts to limit early voting, end same-day registration, and voter identification requirements. Section 5 offered a tool to for the Department of Justice to challenge these rules until Shelby County v. Holder ended the preclearance requirement in the absence of further congressional action. Waters sharply criticized that Supreme Court decision, saying it has allowed voting laws with the same effect as poll taxes or literacy tests to remain on the books.

The Congresswoman concluded by summarizing her frustrations over a lack of congressional action to amend the VRA in the wake of the Shelby decision. She blamed this failure on the “extraordinary influence” of “mean-spirited, states-rights conservatives who resent the growing power of minorities in this country, and are intent on creating law and policies to curtail it.”

The subsequent panel discussion featured Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, Thomas Saenz of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Andrea Zopp, formerly of the Chicago Urban League and currently a candidate for the Democratic nomination for United States Senate in Illinois.

Hans von Spakovksy fielded the first question, claiming that the Voting Rights Act was the most important piece of legislation passed in the last century, surpassing even the Civil Rights Act. He cited the greatly expanded effective franchise for African Americans after the passage of the law as support for that assertion. He pushed back against the notion that Shelby County significantly hindered this historic effort; Section 2, he claimed, is far more important to the effective enforcement of voting rights than the preclearance procedure of Section 5.

The remainder of the question and answer section was an at times testy back-and-forth between von Spakovsky on one side and Zopp, Saenz, and Waters on the other. Von Spakovsky cited statistics demonstrating undiminished or even increased minority voter participation in the wake of voter identification and other laws often alleged to have discriminatory intent or impact. Saenz argued that von Spakovsky’s reliance on Section 2 to vindicate voting rights was misplaced given the inefficiencies and delays associated with litigation-based, post-violation enforcement.